Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let's Try This Again Next Year

I've been pretty spotty with my writing lately, mostly because I try to give real life priority when it starts demanding it. Lately, real life has been pretty needy. But any concerns in my life pale in comparison to those of the families affected by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut this past weekend. To be honest, I don't even want to write about the shootings. I don't want to think about them. I avoided any news for the entirety of last weekend because there were details I just simply didn't want to know. I'm not sure if it was the magnitude of the tragedy or the fact that having been a teacher increases the emotional proximity, but the news hit me in a way that events I'm personally disconnected from usually don't.

Almost as if on cue came the cries of blame - the endless search for some connection, some simple explanation to a supremely irrational event. At best, these accusations were aimed at a constructive solution to prevent events like this from recurring. At worst, they used the tragedy to fuel the fires of their own hatred. It now appears that any attempt at a rational explanation is increasingly futile, as the connections between the killer and his victims become tenuous to the point of vanishing. I've long imagined true horror to be evil that exists without obeying logic. This, if anything, fits that description.

I realize that this post might seem somewhat out of place in what's typically a film blog, but I can't at the moment disengage myself from the real-life horror of Newtown to write about fictional horror. While I'd like to believe the films and media I consume exist in a space separate from reality, it's impossible for me to pretend that there's no overlap between the two. Films are a lens that I use to examine the real world at a safe distance, but at a time like this, the image doesn't need any magnification or distortion. Nothing that we can imagine and superimpose on reality could ever match the horrifying senselessness of a gunman opening fire on children in an elementary school. The reality needs to sit there, stark, and fade slowly on its own accord.

When I sat down this week to write a new post about a film, I came up dry. It felt petty. I can't summon the emotional wherewithal to send all the true horror to the back of my mind and separate the twin realms of film and reality. I can't force myself to analyze fake murder and make light of death when the real thing looms so prominently.

These are my failings, not that of filmmakers, authors, bloggers, or the genre we all spend so much time poring over. I've said before, and I still maintain that the horror genre is a necessary tool to examine the evil in the world from a place of safety. I'm not abandoning this blog or neglecting it out of some new fundamental disdain for horror. There simply isn't enough space in my head to accomodate both the real and the fictional right now.

I'll be back next year, hoping to write more consistently, and hoping that society will become increasingly compassionate and humane in the wake of an act more terrible than any film or novel could imagine. Until then, thanks for indulging my digressions. I hope you're able to enjoy the holidays with those that you love.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Death by Yahoo! Poker in THE CARD PLAYER [Argento-thon]

The Card Player (2004)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 4.5 / 10

Warning: spoilers ahead, because it doesn't really matter for this movie. 

After Sleepless, Argento continued to move toward thrillers more grounded in reality and toned down the extreme style that had characterized his earlier work. The Card Player was initially intended to be a sequel to The Stendhal Syndrome that would follow detective Anna Manni on a new case. Asia Argento was unavailable for the role however, so instead the story was modified slightly (along with the heroine's name), and introduced detective Anna Mari, played by actress Stefania Rocca.

The Card Player marks a new development for Argento in that it uses legitimate technology to drive the plot. Argento has long been fond of dropping little bits of psuedoscience into his films. While these sometimes provide a pivot on which the story will turn (most prominently the end of Four Flies on Grey Velvet), they're never really the focus. In The Card Player, the internet is essential to the plot, particularly an internet poker game that resembles something like Yahoo! Poker. There's a killer on the loose who's brazen enough to directly challenge the police by establishing an online game in which he and the detectives will play for the life of an innocent woman. Okay, it's farfetched, but grounded in real-world technology at least.
The most dangerous game.

When Detective Mari gets the first email from the killer, she disregards it, which ends up having disastrous consequences. To help her track down the man who just killed a woman in front of the entire police station, she's paired up with an awesome Irish cop named John Brennan, who remains true to the stereotype in every way. Brennan is constantly drunk, belligerent, and generally a bad-ass. After receiving a second challenge and naively thinking they'll just play and win, things end poorly again. So the detectives decide to do what any sensible person would: go to the nearest poker club and blackmail a "poker prodigy" into playing for them.

Now watching a series of online card games might not sound riveting, and truthfully it's not always. But Argento does his best to film the games in a suspenseful way. It might not have turned out exactly how he intended, but it ends up being incredibly entertaining. Whenever there's a poker game, it isn't just Mari sitting at her desk clicking around on her computer alone. No, every cop in the entire building shows up and crowds around the screen. What's more, they're the most foul-mouthed Greek chorus I've ever seen, and provide constant commentary on the game. Every time Mari loses a hand there are approximately fifty voices shouting "Oh, fuck!" "God damn that asshole!" and "Fucking shit!" all in wonderfully broken English. When they finally manage to win a hand, the poker prodigy jumps around the room screaming "Fuck you! Ha ha! I did it!" with a cacophony of fuckwords and taunts shouted in the background. The amount of gloating and trash talk in this movie is off the charts, and it's massively entertaining.

Fuck you! I'm-a gonna win!
The poker games continue, as do the murders, and the plot reaches a climax when the killer breaks into Mari's house and kidnaps her. His brilliant idea: to handcuff both of them to some train tracks and force Mari to play poker for her life on a laptop he's dragged along. It's best to just let you watch this scene for yourself:

Is this a good movie? No, not really. Is it entertaining as hell?  Definitely, provided you can disassociate it entirely from everything you know about Argento. The corny plot and over-the-top acting make this one fun, but seriously forgettable. If you need something cheesy to enjoy with a group of friends, this would qualify. Just make sure (like I did) that the wine cellar is fully stocked. On an absolute scale, there's nothing here that's memorable.

The Good

It's entertaining just because of how ridiculous it gets. While card games might not be intrinsically riveting, the enthusiasm that the cast brings to the material makes them pretty fun.

The Bad

The goofiness undermines any attempt at the serious moments that the plot seems to strive for. The acting is awful, due mostly to non-native English speakers delivering their lines in English.

...the Hell?

How does a man who dances around like a maniac and refers to corpses as "his dolls" keep his job as a mortician?

After being submerged in water for a day or so, corpses will blast out a high-pressure stream from their mouths. Keep your face clear!

The Verdict

The Card Player is Argento's attempt to stay relevant in a new era of filmmaking. While stepping into the realm of the techno-thriller and writing a story that's a more quickly paced give his film a more modern feel, it ultimately comes off as campy. Entertaining, true, but maybe not in the way that Argento intended.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

SLEEPLESS: The Last True Argento Film? [Argento-thon]

Sleepless (2001)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Artisan DVD
Rating: 6.5 / 10

Due to some personal chaos, it's been a while since the last Argento-thon installment. I swear it wasn't the disheartening experience of watching The Phantom of the Opera. But I never start anything I don't intend to finish, and now that I have time on my hands again, let's put on the black gloves and finish this thing off once and for all. Onward, to Sleepless!

Sleepless opens with a quick flashback to Turin in 1983, where Inspector Moretti (played by Max Von Sydow) walks into the scene of a brutal murder where a young boy has watched his mother die. Moretti assures the boy he'll find the killer, even if it takes the rest of his life. Then we're back to the present, in what seems to be an unrelated event, as we watching a hooker from what appears to be the POV of her client. (It's not quite as creepy as it sounds.) When he gets a little too demanding and she finds a collection of knives and newspaper clippings about murder, she decides reasonably enough that it's time to get out.

The next fifteen minutes are just about as pure Argento as you can get. Pursued by the killer, the lady of the night flees onto a train with the man's murder scrapbook in hand as evidence. With a Goblin tune playing in the background (the band breifly reunited around the time of this film) we follow the killer as he stalks his prey through the deserted train. Echoes of Suspiria can be seen in the rain-drenched train station where the girl's friend waits to pick her up. As you might guess, things don't end well. Who's assigned to the case but inspector Moretti, who now begins to wonder if there isn't some connection to the long-buried "dwarf murders" he'd sworn to solve back in 1983. Yes, that's exactly right: dwarf murders. Not the kind where dwarves are murdered, but the kind where there's a killer little person on the loose.

Ignoring the blip that was The Phantom of the Opera, Sleepless continues Argento's shift toward films that are more stylistically grounded than his earlier work. The color palette is more subdued, the kills are less outlandish (although no less brutal), and the plot veers steadily away from psuedo-science and the occult. Moretti's preference for solving things the "old-fashioned" way and his constant railing against technology is also a nice touch. Argento seems to be lamenting the old-fashioned legwork that drove his earlier stories forward, as well as the waning appeal of the slower detective story in the face of flashier, action-driven crime. (He'd cave in and use technology as the central plot device in his next film.)

Crime-fighting buddies
Even so, Sleepless isn't above throwing in lots of fun touches to keep things from getting dull. For example, there are the slightly wacky antics at the police station when the "dwarf murders" casefile is reopened and all the little people in the area are called in for interviews. There's also Moretti's insistence that talking about the case with his parrot is more productive than technology such as DNA testing. Von Sydow reputedly wasn't comfortable speaking aloud to himself as the script initially demanded, and suggested a pet so that the scenes would appear less artificial.

Sydow is definitely a highlight of Sleepless, and is able to carry it through many of its slower parts. If there's one flaw with his performance, it's that he's too good an actor! I've become so accustomed to the below-average dubbing and overacting in older Italian films that Von Sydow seems out of place. Everyone else is thrown into sharp contrast when he's around, and it's a little jarring. Still, having a more relatable character mixed in with the caricatures isn't a bad thing.

I don't know if it was the music, the style, or the poor picture quality of the DVD I had, but I'd never in a million years have guessed this was released in 2001. That said, I'm fine with it. Like Moretti bemoaning the loss of old-fashioned detective work, this film in a way feels like Argento having fun with a lot of his old methods one last time before deciding to move on. It's not as solid or brazenly stylish as his older works, but it's a good revisitation of everything you'd expect in a classic Argento plot.

The Good

Sleepless is a return to form for Argento, and almost feels like a swan song for the giallo. Max Von Sydow brings a level of class and technique that isn't usually present. When it's really firing on all cylinders, it's pretty suspenseful.

The Bad

There's too much downtime. Things definitely could have been tightened up a little, as there are many places near the end where the seams in the writing start to show. Von Sydow also throws everyone else's bad acting into stark contrast against his own.

...the Hell?

Who writes a children's book about a farmer systematically murdering all his farm animals?

The Verdict

Sleepless is worth a watch if you've seen all the classic Argento gialli and want a little more of the same. There's no real new ground broken, but it's a reminder that Dario hadn't completely lost his touch, even this late in his career. I'd use this film to mark the turning point past which Argento really began experimenting (to sometimes disastrous results).

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Hate and Love are One," and I "Love" THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA [Argento-thon]

The Phantom of the Opera (1998)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Netflix Instant
Rating: 3.5 / 10

Oh boy. Any confidence I had after The Stendhal Syndrome that Argento's career was on an upswing was destroyed by this scatterbrained meandering take on Gaston Leroux's oft-revisited tale of doomed love. Whenever a story that's been done this many times is taken on again, something new has to be brought to the table. Argento's unfortunate decision was to change too much - to add too many diversions and flourishes and soak the whole thing in lavish but ultimately empty costumes and set pieces.

Even Asia Argento can't save this one (sorry, honey). Rather than continuing her streak of psychologically damaged heroines, she adopts the role of a young understudy named Christine and constantly tries to keep a straight face while responding to lines like "Your female smell floats through my veins like the melody of the rolling ocean." Oh, I forgot to mention the Phantom himself, Julian Sands (a.k.a. that guy from Warlock) who's responsible for spewing out stinkers like that with unfailing sincerity. The Phantom is the victim of one of Argento's most drastic changes. Here he's not physically disfigured, but a normal-looking guy who's been raised by rats and is somehow telepathic. This essentially removes any mystery to his character as well as making the clandestine nature of his relationship with Christine something of a puzzle. Couldn't he just, you know, leave the rats underground when he's hanging out with her in public?

All in all, a pretty ordinary guy.
There's rarely time to focus on the weird relationship dynamics though, because the story jumps from the Phantom offing operahouse workers who intrude upon his lair, to a ratcatcher who builds a giant riding lawnmower to chop the pests up, to multiple old men creeping on the young dance students, all occasionally interrupted by a dubbed piece of opera. There's also gore. This easily eclipses any previous work of Argento's in sheer bloodiness, and it's a shame that it feels like it's just there to keep you interested in a plot that's perpetually stuck in equilibrium.

That's the main problem I had with this one: there's just insufficient momentum to keep things going. Instead you get a series of bombastic set-pieces and acting that's more suited for The Phantom of the Soap-opera. I could probably spend time putting this into context and look at it in the general trajectory of Argento's career, but I'd rather just let it go and move on.

The Good

This was the largest budget Argento ever had to work with, so at the very least it looks good.

The Bad

The plot wanders. The tone is uneven. It's corny as hell.

...the hell?

The ratcatcher's rat-lawnmower. Seriously?

Also... this:

The Verdict: 

While it might be tempting to check this one out just because it's right at your little Netflix Instant fingertips, you'll be missing very little if you skip it. Some might enjoy the ridiculousness of it all, but it just didn't work in any way for me.

Friday, November 2, 2012

GIVEAWAY: This Book Is Full of Spiders, by David Wong

John Dies at the End is one of the funniest horror novels (or novels, period) I've read in a long time, and I'm really looking forward to checking out the Don Coscarelli-helmed film adaptation when it gets a widespread release.

In the meantime, the sequel, This Book Is Full of Spiders, was released last month, and I happen to have come across an extra copy! Since none of my real friends read horror (or I'm an internet recluse without any RL friends - take your pick) I'd like to give it away to one of you.

If you're interested, either leave a comment or shoot me an email at and recommend a good horror novel to me (don't worry about whether I've read it or not). That's it, just do it before Nov. 16. And if you do feel inclined to follow the site through blogger, or throw it into your RSS reader, hey, I won't stop you.

I'll pick someone at random to send the book to - and since I do science in real life, you can assure it'll be completely random (or at least psuedorandom). No need to include an address or any of that. I'll bug you for it if you win. I'm not trying to creep on anyone here. Just be a resident of the U.S. (I can't afford international shipping) and please, no P.O. Boxes.

Let's be honest. Your chances are pretty good if you're interested. There aren't a ton of people who read this site. But I appreciate you all that do, so thanks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Argento-thon Miscellania

As I gather my thoughts on the ambitious trainwreck that is Argento's Phantom of the Opera, why not check out some other articles and reviews on Italian horror? Kevin Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies is running an Italian Horror Blogathon, and in addition to his own reviews has compiled a great collection of links as well as a wonderfully comprehensive Italian horror primer. Check it out!

And if that's not enough, here's a recent interview with the Italian Maestro himself, conducted at Film 4's FrightFest earlier this year.

The best part has got to be when the interviewer mentions that David Gordon Green's proposed remake of Suspiria is supposedly going to try to be "more psychedelic" than the original - Dario just laughs. However you feel about his recent work, Argento himself remains as charming as ever.

For all those getting hit by the Frankenstorm, stay safe out there - it can be a vicious world.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Art and Death Collide in THE STENDHAL SYNDROME [Argento-thon]

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Troma Entertainment DVD (R1)
Rating: 7.5 / 10

When I began watching films for Argento-thon, one trend I did not expect to see at the beginning was a general increase in quality. Granted, we're only three films in, but when sitting down to watch The Stendhal Syndrome I didn't aniticpate the climb from the "good enough to kill an hour" of The Black Cat to the "so bonkers it's awesome" of Trauma to continue to take another step up to "a thoroughly hallucinatory good time".

I was really happy to see Asia Argento back for more insanity in this film - it's clear from the opening scene that once again, she's going to be playing a character with some deep mental issues. We first see her anxiously wandering through Florence, clearly uneasy. When she enters an art museum, she loses it completely, and is apparently overcome by some truly menacing pieces of art. The creepy paintings and sculptures showcased here are undercut with Ennio Morricone's unsettling score, to open the film on a high note.

After fainting in the museum, Asia's helped by a stranger who returns her purse. Disoriented and confused, she slowly pieces together her apparent identity - that of Anna Manetti, a detective on the case of a series of brutal murders occurring in Florence. It's in her hotel room when we get the first clue as to what's triggering Anna's fugue state after a staring at a painting induces aural hallucinations. It also seems that the killer has a special interest in her, one that puts both her life and sanity in danger.

Don't worry - Argento still has his penchant
 for innovative kill sequences.
The ensuing cat-and-mouse game between the killer and Anna really only occupies half of the film. The other half is dedicated to exploring how Anna deals with her bizarre mental illness and her seemingly constant quest for a firm identity in the face of a series of awful events. Anna's problem seems to be a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli such as art, pain, and human interaction. As she descends into madness it's questionable whether her actions are the result of an insane mind lashing out at random or those of a person who's just had enough of an overly malevolent world and has decided to fight back. I'd vote for the latter, at least for a little while, mostly due to a scene where Anna reverses the power dynamic in her otherwise lackluster relationship and gets really physical with her boyfriend.

It's a shame that the ending broadcasts itself so loudly and so early in the film. While it fully intends to surprise, it's hard not to see how things are going to play out in the end. There's some misdirection along the way, but you can probably figure this one out pretty early given that Anna's level of crazy only increases over time. Still, while it might not be the strongest murder mystery, as a character study this film works incredibly well - largely in part again, to Asia Argento. She seems to have reined in her performance a little bit compared to her previous role in Trauma, and is still willing to go batshit insane, but only when the script demands it.

How closely does this follow Argento's old style? To be honest, I don't really care. The Stendhal Syndrome really stands on its own as a film. While there are a couple of sequences reminiscent of the films of Argento's past (particularly in a POV kill midway through the film), overall it omits the lavish sets, bombastic score, and outlandish kills in favor of a more down-to-earth tone. Okay, at least when Asia's not hallucinating, stepping into paintings, or losing her mind. On an absolute scale, this film enters some pretty out-there territory, but it feels more measured, more in-control. The quieter scenes aren't there as space for filler or requisite exposition, but as a chance to really dig in to Anna's character. I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed this film.

The Good:

Asia Argento continues to be convincingly insane. Her character is the most interesting part of the film, which bodes well for the somewhat well-trod mystery story that's layered underneath.

Tons of great hallucinations, including one with graffiti coming to life.

The Bad:

While the film might keep you guessing for its first half, you'll probably figure things out well before the end.

The rape scenes get a little excessive. Again, it's a little weird that Dario continually puts his daughter through the wringer in his films, especially considering how graphic some scenes get. More power to Asia for having the daring to handle some really tough material.

...the hell?

That's Asia Argento kissing a fish. I wish I could put this into context, but really - there is none.

The Verdict:

Having now wrapped up my Argento-thon viewing (but not the writing - much more is coming!) I can confidently say that The Stendhal Syndrome takes the award for best Argento film I'd never bothered to see. If you haven't bothered, give it a shot and be sure to let me know what you think.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fixated on TRAUMA [Argento-thon]

Trauma (1993)
Director: Dario Argento
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD (R1)
Rating: 7 / 10

Questionable psychology and psuedo-science are some of Dario Argento's favorite things. In the realm of psychology, he seems to be a huge fan of throwing a Freudian fixation on top of his killer's psyche as an explanation for their impetus to murder. Following an exposure to some horrifying event, they're obsessed with recreating and reliving the conditions of whatever drove them off the deep end. After breaking from the usual with his short homage to Edgar Allen Poe in Two Evil Eyes, Argento decided to return to form and head back to the realm of Freud in what's probably his most overtly psychology-focused film: Trauma.

First off, anyone who missed the murderous black gloves in The Black Cat can rejoice, because they're back in full force here. The film opens with the brutal murder of a chiropractor with some sort of bizarre mechanized garrote. In case you were wondering, those paper cutouts of the French Revolution that appeared right after the opening credits weren't just for show; decapitation is the name of the game in Trauma.

After the murder, we're introduced to a young girl named Aura who's trying to commit suicide by throwing herself from a bridge. Thankfully, she's rescued by a young artist named David (Christopher Rydell). Aura, played by Dario's daughter Asia, is clearly crazy, and we find out later that she's anorexic, which in this film is treated like some sort of exotic mental illness. Aura's promptly snatched up by a couple of suited men sent by her parents, and brought home where she'll presumably be locked away again.

What follows is a flurry of off-the-wall events. Aura's parents have invited a curious cast of characters over to have a seance. They're hoping to determine the identity of the killer who's running loose - the same one who killed the chiropractor. After Aura's mother channels a spirit claiming the killer is in the room, a storm hits and knocks the power out, Aura breaks loose, chaos ensues, and Aura's parents are murdered. Aura flees back to the city, only to run into - you guessed it - David. This'll repeat throughout the film: David and Aura's paths are constantly intersecting and diverging. Whenever Aura's around, things are pretty interesting. Asia Argento is definitely one of the more fascinating parts of this film, and I can't quite place why. Maybe it's her acting, which is just off enough to make me wonder if she intended it to be this way. Maybe it's the creepy thought of Dario directing his own daughter through all these morbid events. Most likely, it's because she can scream bloody murder and make me believe it. Sorry David, you're just sort of boring compared to Asia.

Now David and Aura set out to discover the identity of the murder, while navigating their emerging feelings for each other (which are complicated by David's understandably pissed girlfriend). Meanwhile, we also get some pretty great scenes focusing on the killer at home, all shot in a way that conceals his/her true identity. This person is clearly motivated by something - s/he only kills when it rains, favors the strange auto-garrote as a method of killing, and knocks off people with a common past one by one. Our lens into the killer's lair is a young neighbor boy who's just a little too nosy. As you might expect, people who see too much in an Argento film end up playing a role in the denouement, whether they want to or not. (And while we're mentioning Argento tropes, if you're watching for unusual POV shots, there's one here from the perspective of a butterfly that the kid is trying to catch).

Keep those binoculars away from the neighbor's windows, kid...
especially since your neighbor is a serial killer.
While the plot compiles tons of classic Argento themes, the transition to filming in the U.S. also brings along the somewhat diluted atmosphere that started with Two Evil Eyes. As a former Minnesotan I really enjoyed that the film was set in Minneapolis/St. Paul, but again, this drastically subverts the distinctly European flavor you tend to get in gialli. More than anything, this has the feel of a 90's horror film, reinforced by an abundance of practical effects, slightly goofy kill sequences, more traditional soundtrack, and even a touch of green-screen.

Fun Fact: Decapitated heads continue to scream for up to 10 seconds
after they're removed from the body.
Still, there is lots to enjoy. It's like Argento took all his favorite plot devices and blew them up by a factor of 10. Just a short list would include: berries that induce hallucinations of the past, some extremely warped motherhood, unsuspecting witnesses being drawn into twisted killings, not one, but two psychologically damaged characters, and a fixation on a past event that is absolutely bonkers when it's revealed. It's manically uneven in a lot of places, and can't ever establish a truly serious tone, but I found it thoroughly entertaining.

The Good:

Asia Argento. She's fascinatingly crazy and only becomes more so in Argento's later films. This isn't her debut by any means - she'd starred in a number of previous films including The Church, directed by Michele Soavi and written by Dario (which has just jumped to the top of my watch list).

The overblown ending is just the icing on the cake to all the insanity that's preceded it.

Playing spot-the-landmarks in Minneapolis / St. Paul is a lot of fun (although this might not have the same appeal for you).

The Bad:

Dario filming Asia in the shower is more than a little creepy.

Chris Rydell just isn't that interesting or compelling next to Asia.

The beginning of the film is wildly uneven, and takes about half an hour to find its groove.

...the hell?

What's up with the Reggae band at the end?

Decapitated heads are very chatty in this movie.

The verdict:

This one is definitely worth seeking out if you haven't seen it. For those purists who deride it as somewhat silly, I'd invite you to rethink Deep Red or Phenomena. Remember the walking doll? Remember the killer monkey?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Argento Takes on Poe: TWO EVIL EYES [Argento-thon]

Two Evil Eyes (1990)
Director: George Romero & Dario Argento
Seen via: Blue Underground DVD (R1)
Rating: 6/10 (for "The Black Cat")

To kick off Argento-thon, I started with the earliest film I hadn't seen: 1990's Two Evil Eyes. To be fair though, Argento is only really responsible for *half* of the film, which is a two-part Edgar Allen Poe-themed collaboration with U.S. horror legend George Romero. (Initial plans to make it a four-parter with John Carpenter and Wes Craven didn't pan out.) Romero's film is an updated version of the story "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," which focuses on a couple attempting to swindle a dying man out of his fortune. Little do they know that his ghost won't be quite so happy to see what they've done. I won't really talk much about Romero's film, mostly because it's not very good. Overlong and overly dramatic, it's really sort of a drag, albeit with a couple of creepy moments toward the end.

Argento's half of the film is much more entertaining, and doesn't take its inspiration from a single Poe story. Instead it mashes up themes from several. Playing "spot the references" is pretty fun during this one, although you don't need to be familiar with Poe's work to enjoy it.

The film opens with a particularly grisly gore setpiece, in which the aftermath of a pit-and-the-pendulum style murder is being investigated by Roderick Usher, played by a questionably sober Harvey Keitel. Usher shows up in a beret, which is how you know he has artistic leanings. Rather than being sort of an obvious move, it's perhaps a clue that he's not the most subtle when it comes to displaying his feelings. Most of the rest of the film involves Keitel wearing his frustrations and anger on his sleeve.

There is lots of this in "The Black Cat"
He's a thwarted artist at heart, one who wonders why his book of crime scene photos entitled "Metropolitan Horrors" won't sell (you know, aside from the questionable legality). His marital life isn't going so well either, especially when his girlfriend brings a cat home. Usher is not a cat person, and in a bout of frustration and twisted inspiration, Usher strangles the cat, while photographing the whole process as art. Whether it's his high stress job, failed aspirations, or failing marriage, something is pushing Usher over the edge.

I'm not sure as to what degree Keitel adopted method acting for this film, but it's worth noting that he seems legitimately drunk in quite a few scenes. Maybe he's acting really well, but those bags under your eyes are hard to fake.

The crime scene photos alone wouldn't sell the book,
but kill a cat or two, and it takes off? What's wrong with you, Pittsburgh?
The remainder of the film focuses on Usher's rather quick descent into madness. Killing a cat is only the beginning for him. After that, we get a strange hallucination scene of a pagan ritual where Usher is impaled, and then we watch his anger escalate into murderous rages that are no longer limited to the animal kingdom.

The elaborate kill sequences and POV shots from older Argento are mostly absent. There are still little bits of creativity though, including one absolutely brutal stab that involves a knife to the hand. (Very similar to the stab to the jaw in Opera.) One thing that Dario has clearly maintained is his ability to craft cringe-worthy kill scenes. The gore is amped up a little bit as well... a trend that I've noticed continues throughout Argento's career. This film (not being a giallo) eschews more of the giallo tropes that Dario did well, but it also leaves out a lot of the style. There are thematic nods to Deep Red and Tenebre, but they're just that - little nods. Since we don't have an antagonist whose identity is secret, there isn't really a need for many POV kills, but instead there are an abundance of cat POV shots!

Argento sets this film in Pittsburgh, and it isn't the first time he'd filmed in the U.S.; Inferno and Tenebre both had scenes shot in New York. It does mark the first time he'd set a film exclusively in the U.S. though, and in that sense it's sort of a turning point. There is a strong sense of place in this film, and it's very clearly not Europe, which to my American eyes grounds it more firmly in the real world. This film was also a big move away from his past themes, although it's likely due to the fact that he was focusing on a Poe-themed story as opposed to a genuine desire to shift gears.

Overall, this is an entertaining little film if you ignore Romero's contribution. Aregento-thon is off to a good start! Next up is Trauma - stay tuned!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Argento-thon Begins!

Pull on those black gloves, and crank up the Goblin... It's time for Argento-thon!

Dario Argento is by far one of my favorite horror directors, but he certainly didn't start out that way. I remember being unimpressed by the director's cut of Deep Red and underwhelmed the first time I saw Suspiria. Part of the problem was me. At the time I first encountered Argento I wasn't prepared to absorb the mix of style and surrealism he brings to his films. Also, the conditions under which I saw both were atrocious - on my tiny CRT TV, lights on, sound down, wine mostly gone. You get the idea. But tastes change... After learning to appreciate some other older Italian horror (primarily Bava), then heading back to Inferno, I was sold. I was lucky enough to catch both Deep Red (in its original, cut incarnation) and Suspiria theatrically, which had an enormous impact on how I perceived these films. Both are now firmly cemented in my own personal canon of favorites.

Argento's films aren't easy to swallow. I'm convinced this is partly due to how the conventions of the giallo differ from those of mainstream modern horror, but also partly due to some of Argento's directorial idiosyncrasies. Regardless, Argento was one of the first directors to really challenge me, and that's one of the reasons I'm such a fan now.

Recently, I noticed that I've stayed away from everything Dario has done since the 90's. Whether this has been some sort of unconscious decision I'm not sure, but I can say that I've heard way more bad than good about late-stage Argento. Hints that I might be biased in the wrong direction came up when I was talking to a friend about how I had Trauma sitting around on VHS - he replied "You have it and you haven't watched it?" I wondered... what was I missing out on?

My mission in Argento-thon is to fix this by watching all of Argento's films that I haven't seen. To be honest, this is everything from 1990's Two Evil Eyes to 2009's Giallo (I have no idea if or when I'll be able to see Dracula 3D). Everything pre-Opera I've tackled (well, with one exception...), so I'll try to drop any preconceptions I have and approach things fresh. But I'm going to inevitably be looking for some of Dario's old style in everything new that I see.

So what are some of the things that characterize Argento's style in my mind? Many of them are carried over from the typical tropes found in the gialli that launched his career, but even in those old films he managed to put his own unique spin on things:

From The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
The giallo killer - The iconic faceless, black-gloved antagonist clad in a trenchcoat and fedora. This was a staple of the gialli that launched Dario's career, but even when he isn't strictly adhering to the giallo formula, the gloves pop up frequently in Dario's work.

1st-person POV - Speaking of that killer, allowing the camera to take on his/her perspective allows you to see all the slaughter without revealing his/her identity.

From Deep Red
Horrors from the Past - Why is this masked stranger killing? Usually it's not simply bloodlust, but due to some psychological trauma that's happened in the past. Murder gives the killer a chance for revenge, or a chance to recreate the circumstances of whatever past event they're fixated on. The sense that there are buried secrets also adds a bit of gothic atmosphere.

Outsider protagonists - Rather than following a detective, the film's hero is often an artist, musician, tourist, or average Joe who'd really rather be minding their own business than getting wrapped up in whatever grisly deaths are occuring in the area.

From Deep Red - You shouldn't have watched...
Seeing the Forbidden - The hero IS involved though, often against his will, much of the time because he's seen something he shouldn't. Seeking out hidden knowledge or secrets that are better left buried also usually end with Bad Things Happening.

Evil Mothers - And when we finally find out who's behind it all, it's often someone's mother... These women are powerful and occasionally supernatural, but always very, very angry.

From Suspiria
Lurid Lighting - It seems like Dario drew upon inspiration from his predecessor Mario Bava and often soaks his sets in a wash of garish colors.

Artsy Death - It's not just the lighting that's pretty. The death sequences are often meticulously-composed and choreographed affairs.

From Inferno
Dream logic - Things don't always make sense, either, and whether it's writing that lacks a little backbone or a deliberate turn toward the oneiric, Argento enjoys infusing a surreal nightmarish air to his films.

Killer music - Goblin's scores to Suspiria and Deep Red are incredible, and Ennio Morricone's work in Dario's early gialli was also great. Later on, he progressed to using more metal, to questionable effect. One thing's for sure though - music has always influenced Dario's work.

These are just the visual and thematic elements that stand out the most to me - there's lots to discuss about common threads running through Argento's body of work, and I'll undoubtedly hit upon some additional points in my reviews. I'd love to hear some of your opinions on what best characterizes Argento's style - don't be afraid to comment.

Also, if you've got articles (new or old) on any of Argento's work, feel free to send them to me at (or leave a comment), and I'll be happy to link to them in a later post.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

This Is More or Less How I Dance [DTM Video 004]

Here's a clip that may well be the most disturbing 30 seconds of your day.

I think it's awesome when it's completely out of context. If you're curious, check out Guinea Pig 4 (or 6, depending on who you ask): Devil Woman Doctor.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Problem with Pascal Laugier's THE TALL MAN

This isn't so much a review as it is an addendum to lots of other reviews I've read. For fear of spoilers, many people seem reluctant to give away the shocking secret of The Tall Man, but in my opinion the ending is worth talking about more than anything else.

Some background, just in case: The Tall Man is the third feature from French director/screenwriter Pascal Laugier, who generated lots of attention with his previous ultra-violent/psuedo-spiritual film Martyrs. I really enjoyed Martyrs myself, mostly because it genuinely shook me up and showed that Laugier was willing to subvert what horror fans wanted and expected in a film. I also really enjoyed his debut, Saint Ange (retitled to the forgettable House of Voices for the U.S.) which explored some of the same themes as Martyrs in an atmospheric gothic horror tale. If anything, with his first two films Laugier showed himself to be adept at evoking emotion and in possession of a keen eye for truly haunting and visually appealing scenes. He's one of the directors I always point to when I hear complaints about new horror having nothing to offer. (He's also the one person I think who really gets what a good Hellraiser revision would look like. It's a shame he was dropped from the project.)

So The Tall Man - essentially a boogeyman tale about an apparition kidnapping children from a rural town in the pacific northwest - seemed to mark a move away from extreme violence back toward something a little more subdued. As before, Laugier is willing to subvert expectations, although when the curtain is pulled back on this one, there's some really questionable stuff hiding behind it.

[Spoilers begin here. Also, some bitching.]

The existence of the film's mythical Tall Man is called into question within the first half-hour of the film. Jessica Biel plays a local nurse whose son has just been kidnapped, and she chases the kidnapper down to make the discovery that he appears to be human. Long story short - we're looking at things backwards. Biel is the one who's kidnapped the child, and he's just been taken back by his actual mother. This isn't the first kid Biel has snatched either. It turns out that she and her husband are the ones behind the whole Tall Man myth. Why is Biel kidnapping kids? To deliver them from the misery that they'll face in this poor rural town and give them a wonderful life in the big city.

Whoa, wait.

Biel is stealing poor country kids and giving them to rich urban parents.  Because there's no way they can have a fulfilling life in a small town. Note that she's not selling them - that would be wrong. 

Now it suddenly makes sense why everyone in this town is portrayed as a dumb, grimy, hick.

  • Early in the film, Biel assists a pregnant teenage girl by delivering her baby. The mother refuses medical care for the girl and the child, presumably because of her ignorance and distrust of those big city doctors.
  • Said mother gets in a fight with her boyfriend (who incidentally was the one who fathered her daughter's child) and smacks him with a wrench after he assaults her other, younger daughter. The two laugh it off together, because you know, domestic violence is pretty funny.
  • There's "no school" in this town. Which apparently means kids simply don't go to school. Shot after shot shows them running around the streets, lingering in junkyards, and sitting on dirty cars, all the while looking filthy and disheveled.
Without first establishing this town of straw men, Laugier's whole premise falls apart. He's essentially posing the question: "Is kidnapping okay?" and the answer is, supposed to be "well, in this awful fictional town, maybe." In the real world, the answer is unequivocally "no."

The suggestion that rich people are better suited to raising kids than poor people is absurd, but it's one this film asks us to, if not agree with, at least consider thoughtfully. Throwing an obnoxious one-dimensional idea like this out there as "controversy" doesn't make a film smart. Quite the opposite, in fact.

"Come with me, kid, I know what's best for you!"
This is a real shame, because if you can ignore the awful stereotypes you've got a very suspenseful and nicely crafted film. I have a new respect for Biel as an actress after this, and was glad to see Jodelle Ferland (more commonly known as the girl from Silent Hill) deliver a convincing performance as well. Laguier has an eye for creating really foreboding sets and an extremely tense atmosphere, and he's in full form here.

I didn't intend to write anything about The Tall Man initially, but after reading review after review that praised the film for keeping the viewer guessing, I just felt like we needed a little balance. Using offensive caricatures to pose a stupid question might make a film interesting, and it certainly leads the plot in unexpected directions, but it doesn't make it smart. I don't like dwelling on things like this, but they really stand out when I watch a film, and inevitably color my opinion.

Laugier still has most of the respect I have for him as a filmmaker (although maybe not as a writer), and I hope this is just a small misfire. There's a voice-over sequence by Ferland's character at the end of the film that feels like a last-ditch attempt to soften the film's message. Biel was just doing what's best for the kids... they'll be happier this way... "Right? ... Right?"

Sorry - wrong.

The Tall Man is streaming on Netflix at the moment. If you've seen it and have an opinion, let me know whether you agree or if you just think I'm just overreacting. Also, Happy October!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Neon + Slime = MUTANT

Mutant (a.k.a. Forbidden World) (1982)
Director: Alan Holzman
Seen via: Shout! Factory DVD (R1)
Rating: 6/10

You might guess from the grinning xenomorph on the poster and the one-word title consisting solely of the name of the monster that Mutant was made to cash in on the popularity of Alien. You'd be right. Mutant is in every way a third-rate barrel-scraping knock-off. But what it lacks in originality (or budget), it makes up for in slime. So much slime. Someone involved with this film knows the way to my heart. Lest you think this is director Alan Holzman's first foray into sci-fi, think again - he's also responsible for editing Battle Beyond the Stars, the film that gave a new (literal) meaning to the word mothership:

Unfortunately, after this one he abandoned the genre in favor of TV movies and documentaries. The set designer however, was a young man named James Cameron, who would go on to direct the sequel to the movie that this one rips off. Okay, so the sets were re-used from another Corman project - Galaxy of Terror - but with this film, you take what you can get.

Mike (played by Jesse Vint, who the eagle-eyed among you might recognize from bit parts in Chinatown and Silent Running) is some sort of space pilot who's awoken by his robot companion SAM when their ship is mysteriously attacked. The space battle that follows is a weird sequence with the same few effects cobbled together repeatedly. It's a pretty good example of how not to edit a coherent space battle, but it ends up being strangely trippy just because of how disjointed it is.

The whos and whys of the battle don't really matter though, because the whole thing is an excuse to get Mike down on the planet Xarbia, where experiments in designing synthetic life-forms are being conducted in hopes of resolving a galactic food crisis. (Although I'd guess if the entire galaxy runs out of food, you're kind of screwed.) Once we're down on the planet, it becomes very clear that we've entered a full-blown Alien rip-off. This thing is growing in the lab:

And it's not surprising that this biological experiment eventually breaks free, given how messy and unkempt the lab is. Now things take off and start to get interesting - the mutant eats people by injecting them with its DNA, and this causes their corpses to slowly dissolve into pure protein that the beast can eat.

While the monster is running amok, Mike is busy getting busy. Not just with one of the girls in the station, but BOTH. One of these scenes occurs with the lab's security guy creepily watching on survellance cameras. Wait - they placed security cameras in the bedrooms? Who thought that was a good idea? Get ready for some neon eighties sex intercut with a sweaty creeper watching intently.


Did I mention the slime? There's a glorious amount of it. While the station's occupants are preoccupied with voyuerism and the like, the corpses of those killed by the mutant go through many disgusting stages:

I don't generally like spoiling endings, but this one is too good to not mention. As the mutant gains strength from eating nearly everyone on the station, our heroes get increasingly desperate. So desperate, in fact, that the best solution they can come up with to defeat it is to feed it a cancerous tumor that the scientist, Cal, has been cultivating inside his own body.

To get the tumor, Mike takes the obvious approach and rips the tumor out of Cal's body WITH HIS HANDS. (You can watch this scene here if you don't believe me.) After eating said tumor, the mutant instantly gets cancer and dies. The thing that blows my mind is that there was a scalpel there to perform the initial incision - why the hell did Mike not use it to cut the tumor out instead of ripping it slowly off poor Cal's liver?

You can tell that Holzmann really gave it his best shot with this movie. What the effects lack in quality, they make up for in neon, blood, and slime, which is usually a fair trade-off for me. Nothing in this film calls to mind the word "quality," but there are quite a few entertaining bits. This is exactly the kind of video rental or Saturday afternoon TV matinee that I would have loved as a kid, and I got a certain amount of joy out of it.

Also, there is an abundance of stuff like this:

Goggles, lasers, gore, and cheap creature effects - if any of these things sound appealing to you, this might be worth a look. Just note that the unrated director's cut on the Shout! Factory release (the one tagged "Roger Corman's Cult Classics") is an awful, dim, low-quality VHS rip, complete with glitches. I can't speak to the quality of the theatrical cut, since Netflix didn't send me that disc.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Step-dad Romance and Custody Battles with My Magic Ghost Dog

Ahem. Hello, everyone. At this point we're going to take a break from the usual horror stuff and talk about animals. Specifically, supernatural animals, and not the vicious, toothy, scary kind. No, these will be the loveable, glittery, golden retriever kind:

You can thank Emily at the Deadly Doll's House for whatever follows. This whole month she's been reviewing films that fall into the "Animals Doing Human Stuff" microgenre. I'll confess - I've always found these movies fascinating simply because... well, I don't have a good reason, okay? But where else can you find stuff like a Sasquatch playing basketball or a karate dog pushing canine anatomy to its utmost limits?

Since Ghost Cat has already been covered, today I'll be taking a look at My Ghost Dog, a TV movie that frequently shows up under the guise of My Magic Dog. He's more ghost than magic though, so we'll stick with the original title. (Also, just so you know, if you're not in the mood for reading, you can scroll down to the bottom and watch the video down there for the highlights.)

By the way, who's that kid on the My Magic Dog cover? He sure doesn't appear in the movie! Now that I look more closely, the cover art for My Ghost Dog shows the right kid, but this time with a mystery woman. (Also, a truly immense angelic dog.) Who pays the people that make these covers?

Anyway, on to the story. Toby lives with his step-dad. Not only are his parents divorced, but his Mom has recently passed away, which means we have a x2 divorced/deceased parent combo! (Maybe that's Ghost Mom on the cover?) Not only that, his biological dad is completely absent from the movie, and maybe dead - which would push the multiplier up to x3! This is clearly some next level children's filmmaking going on here.

For a kid with such bad luck in the parental arena, Toby is surprisingly well-adjusted. He loves his stepdad!

Just not his stepdad's cooking.

Maybe that's why he's become such good friends with Vito, the owner of the local Italian restaurant.

A perfectly normal friendship, honest.

Shut up. Perfectly normal. It also goes without saying that Toby loves his dog, Lucky. Although there's not really much to say about Lucky right now. He's not magic, or a ghost... yet.

We also have to mention Evil Aunt Violet, a wealthy old spinster who wants custody of Toby so she can dandle him on her knee like some sick living trophy (much like the toy poodle she carries everywhere). You know right away that she's bad news because she's almost always filmed at a Dutch angle. The sheer force of her malice knocks the camera off its axis.

To make matters worse, there are some bullies in the neighborhood (of course). "Don't go walking around here talking to your dog," they say to Toby, "it's going to make the neighborhood look wack. Which'll eventually make us look wack." (The transitive property of wackness in action.) These are a different breed of bully... they're not picking on Toby 'cause he's a dork or does nerdy magic tricks. They're the overseers of the neighborhood's image. Which is weird, for a couple of guys who dress like this.

Not wack at all.

Evil attracts evil, and Violet pays the bullies to steal Toby's mom's will, which will be key in his upcoming custody hearing. Just as a loyal guard dog should, Lucky pursues the theives, but is killed when he runs face-first into a speeding car. (Not too lucky, heh heh.) As Toby cries over yet ANOTHER deceased family member, Lucky's soul bursts out of his shattered corpse and rises to heaven in a spray of CG glitter.

Toby barely has time to grieve before Lucky's ghost comes back! No stranger to death, Toby is pretty matter-of-fact about this, and just continues on about his normal day as if having a dead dog following him around were just a matter of course. Oh yeah, Lucky can TALK now too, with a really dopey sort of voice. What do you want from a dog, though?

Now that his Mom's will is gone, Toby thinks that the best plan of action is to hook his dad up with another woman. I have no experience with custody hearings, so I can't comment on how effective this strategy is, only that Toby's pretty bad at matchmaking. After a date with a "weird Nazi woman" (Dad's words, not mine), he fixates on the socially handicapped new neighbor.

Notice how I haven't talked about the dog too much? There's a reason for that. Despite having the ability to talk and move stuff around... this ghost dog doesn't do a whole lot. Most of the time he just hangs out making wisecracks at Toby's expense, and occasionally causes some wacky antics to ensue. There's a fair bit of bully comeuppance that Lucky helps out with, and eventually he saves the day by finding Mom's will just in the nick of time, but overall, he's kind of a lazy smartass. I was wondering the whole time why Toby's MOM didn't come back from the dead. She'd probably have been able to you know, pick up a pen and rewrite her will or something. I guess she might not have been quite so willing to help Dad hook up with a new girl, but who knows?

There's a lot here that I haven't mentioned... like when Dad sings a police report about cops being murdered to his date. Or how Toby becomes an indentured servanat at Vito's restaurant. Or that one time Toby's friend pours a bucket of ACID on the bullies.

Stuff like that just kind of overshadows the dog. Unfortunately, this film neglects the core concept at the heart of the ADHS genre: the animal! There's nary a poop joke nor a dog fart in the entire 90 minutes, and the only montage we get is a short, sad one, set to the tune of "let's gear up to potentially maim some bullies with acid." Looking back, the best thing My Ghost Dog has going for it is a series of one-liners that continually top themselves in sheer audacity.

This movie effectively poisoned the career of everyone involved, with the exception of the director, who's now manning the helm of Atlas Shrugged, Part II. (Although, this in and of itself may arguably indicate career death.) It even snuffed out the acting career of the kid who played Toby before it had a chance to blossom. His IMDB biography states "After finishing his role in this movie, he lost interest in acting; filming 'My Magic Dog' was very hard for him." You and me both, kid.

For those unwilling to spend 90+ minutes on this film, I've created an abridged version that you can watch below, after the requisite checklist. You're welcome. Thanks again to Emily for suggesting this idea, and be sure to check out The Deadly Doll's House for more animal antics!

Animals Doing Human Stuff Trope Checklist
New Kid In Town: X
Recent Dead or Divorced Parent: Double check!
Montage: Half-check - this one sucks.
New Friendship: Half-check again - does an adult neighbor count?
Potentially Inappropriate ‘Friendship’ Between Child & Unrelated Adult (Human): Yes, sir.
Evil Corporate Enemy: X
Original Song: X
Bully Comeuppance: Check
Small Town Values: X
Back To Nature Moral: X

Total score: 5 / 10

Verdict: How can you go wrong with a concept like a Ghost Dog? Not enough Ghost Dog! Wacky step-dad dating antics are great, but if I wanted a movie about relationships, I would have picked the one... well, the one without a giant angel dog head on the cover. That said, there is enough strange stuff here that'll probably keep you entertained.